Saturday, May 29, 2010

Pain: Avoid It or Embrace It?

As I, like others, have faced the great pain of financial loss and insecurity, the anguish of lost trust in those close to me, the discomfort of rocky family relations, and the heartbreak of whip-saw setbacks after thinking I was back on track, it has become clear to me that pain can actually be a helpful element in creating lasting change.  

I have also observed many people struggle with their own unique painful circumstances and am convinced that those who actually embrace the pain as a catalyst to make change (not just because it's soooo much fun!) are much better able to rise above it quickly and become better human beings.  I am not sure I can think of anything more wasteful than enduring a painful experience and choosing to NOT grow from it!

I strongly believe that we are best able to handle the inevitable waves of change and pain that life crashes over us if we understand and accept the hardness of life as a given from the start.

Naturally, our bodies, minds, and spirits do not like pain and it is human nature to try and avoid it.  The problem is that change--especially the worthwhile kind--almost always has some sort of pain associated with it.  Unfortunately, if we do not recognize the pain we are feeling and deal with it—head-on—then we miss a huge opportunity to make the changes that propel us forward.  

Unfortunately, in contrast to the gut-wrenching effort it sometimes takes to deal with our pain head-on, our society has developed multiple tempting means of “coping” with pain that nearly always prove destructive in the short and long-term.  When I say "coping," I mean creating numbness that masks the pain in an unconscious, wasteful attempt to avoid it.  We can bring on that numbness with all sorts of destructive behavior that usually turn into lifelong habits: drinking, drugs, physical, verbal or sexual abuse where we try and transfer our pain to someone else, pornography, and eating disorders (including overeating.)

Remembering that our painful moments are life’s unique gift to us to discover and show the world (at least ourselves) who we truly are can be extremely helpful in rejecting these negative coping traps.  How we react when faced with painful circumstances is how we should measure our greatness.  You may have heard the saying that “trials build real character.”  I prefer the perspective that “trials reveal real character.”  If we develop an attitude of confidence that we can and a desire to endure and overcome trials we become less afraid of pain and change.  Then when we are inevitably faced with trials our character will not just reveal itself, it will grow and we will be ready for the next trial.  (Hopefully with a rest break in between though that is certainly not guaranteed!)

Measuring the greatness of our character when things are easy (like during a rest break) is like measuring the greatness of an athlete during warm-ups.  This is obviously not correct. An athlete’s greatness can only be measured during the height of competition with sweat, blood and tears flowing freely as maximum effort is made to beat a worthy competitor.

So, like an athlete rises to the fight when things get most painful, steel yourself and avoid the urge to take the thumb-sucking fetal position.  Pay attention to the experience and embrace the trial.  Ready yourself for the chance to jump to the next level.  For the greatest triumphs always follow the most painful lows.

Sometimes it may be difficult to recognize that we are merely “coping” rather than embracing pain.  Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Are you comfortable in your discomfort?
  • If you are in a dead-end job, relationship, or habitual behavior do you kid yourself that things aren’t that bad? 
  • Do you mask the discomfort with drugs, food, or other dysfunctional behavior?

We simply don’t have enough earth minutes to let moments of pain—chances to change—pass us by.  On my business card for Bridges To Your Best I added the phrase “Today could be your day.”  I don’t mean that maybe something lucky will happen to you today and your life will get magically better.  I mean that you can make today your day.  I have learned time and time again that luck comes when preparation meets opportunity.  We can’t always control when opportunity will come but we can control our preparation. 

These moments of pain that we all are faced with are our best chances to prepare ourselves for the opportunities that are sure to come.  Just remember that often opportunity disguises itself as a painful trial.  With that knowledge you stand a much better chance of benefitting from it if you actively embrace it rather than passively avoiding it.

Good luck.  Or rather: Be Ready!

Thursday, May 6, 2010

One Step at a Time

Dane completed his epic 202-mile run nearly two weeks ago in Washington D.C.  It was a great adventure for me and my wife despite major lack of sleep, getting what sleep we could in the car, eating fast food, etc.

Since returning home, I have reflected on what Dane accomplished and am once again amazed at what you can do when you simply put one foot in front of the other. I think we all understand the virtue of taking on life's challenges one step at a time but, just as in Dane's run, sometimes the road is dark and a little scary and after thousands of steps the prospect of taking even one more little step can be physically and mentally overwhelming.

As I watched Dane navigate the low points of his run it was instructive to me to watch the human spirit in action.  Often we all face the natural desire to quit or lower the bar when things get difficult.  But if we have developed a strong desire for excellence and an ability to dream big we can marshall the strength to keep us on course and fulfill our destiny.

Dane's run was an adventure not that different from life.  Some people actually asked me what place he came in.  He started 24 hours earlier than the rest of the teams running so it's really not a relevant question but I am struck by the way we as humans keep score.  The question seemed to imply that if he didn't finish near the lead then his accomplishment might mean less.  How about "I just navigated a 202 mile run in 50 hours!" as an indicator of success?  Do you ever worry that we might be judged by others (or ourselves) not by whether we finished the "run" of life but by what place we took? (e.g., the size of our bank account or home, the shape of our body, the number of awards on our wall, etc.)

In this fast-paced world we have, understandably, come to expect fast results and love to keep score.  We are hit daily with clever marketing and real-life examples of quick-fixes, instant answers, and rankings. While I appreciate scientific and technological advances as much as the next non-Luddite we must be careful to not apply "quick-fix" ideas or external judgements to the most important parts of life such as building character and accomplishing our life's dreams.  These pursuits are by nature most difficult and are only accomplished through consistent, steady effort.  Like Dane, we may fall on the trail and want to give up sometimes but if we have prepared ourselves by focusing on character development and doing what matters most, I know that we can find the strength to persevere and stay the course.

It bears repeating (daily!) that becoming our best is much less like a sprint and much more like a 202-mile run.  That means we have to be honest and clear with ourselves that worthwile things take time.  There is no substitute for time and yet the clock is always ticking.  So, if we make the most of each day our results may not be immediate but we can be assured that they will be lasting.

Lastly, don't stop dreaming big simply because we are afraid (or know!) the road will be hard.  We all have different trails to run, or even walk, but the important thing is that we find ours and stay on it.  To stay in our warm emotional/mental bed when the cold winds of life are blowing is essentially tantamount to choosing a life of mediocrity.  No one is on this earth to be mediocre, no one.
I have started BRIDGES because I have gone through (and will continue to) the unpleasant but ultimately rewarding pain of getting out of my comfortable psychological bed, facing the paralyzing freeze of my problems, and moving down my life's path anyway.  I believe my mission now is to share these inspiring principles of BRIDGES I have discovered and provide the motivation for you to move forward so we both can achieve excellence and be a force for good in a world already full of mediocrity and complacency.

We will both do this one determined step at a time.

Stay tuned...